Expeditioning the British Way during the first ascent of the southwest ridge, Nepal.
By Kenton Cool
Slumped in my sleeping bag, I desperately tried to get the stove going. I looked across at Ian, who was shaking uncontrollably with cold. Beyond him lay John. I couldn’t see him in the darkness, but I was reminded of his presence by his wracking cough. Tired and cold, the three of us lay on a tiny ledge at 6,800 meters on the southwest ridge of Annapurna III. As a new wave of coughing overcame John, I secretly prayed for a way off the peak, but no miracle came—this is, after all, the British way.
The southwest side of Annapurna III lies up a little valley mere hours from the bustle of the main Annapurna Sanctuary trek. Our trip began after my friend Sam visited Slovenians who had attempted the line in 2000. The pictures he brought back were powerful enough to convince me that this was the route to take my climbing onto a higher level.
Annapurna III lies to the east of its bigger brother. Standing at 7,555 meters, it dominates the head of the valley that it guards. The southwest ridge stands out from a large, complex face that boasted only one route, far to one side. Our line stood out due to its initial rock buttress and soaring, fluted ridge above. For us mere mortals, the line had two big attractions: it looked “doable” and it seemed safe. Two years passed before I set eyes on the line.
It’s immediately worth clarifying the style we climbed in. I suppose it was a quasi-alpine style of sorts. The Slovenians, it turned out, had left the lower rock buttress fixed, but their ropes were not used for our upward progress except for one move high up, which was freed the second time around. In places their anchors were used. The Slovenian line was also used in our descent and also by John as a jug line the second time up. We found little in the area to acclimatize on, so we initially climbed the lower half of the route, spent a couple of nights at 6,000 meters, stashed food and gas, and returned to base camp. On our next try every pitch was freed, with the second climbing, not jugging. The third guy jugged the Slovenian line with a heavy load. A pure alpine ascent was the plan, but the use of existing anchors and the stashing of gear first time round does admittedly take away from this style, and I’m sure some will criticize us. We, however, had fun.
September of 2003 saw Ian Parnell, the American John Varco, Kiwi Sarah Adcock, and me all meet up in Kathmandu. In true British style the meeting had to be celebrated with a large consumption of different alcoholic drinks (including a cocktail named Annapurna Glory—who said the Brits are modest?). This resulted in three hours of sleep before a bone-shaking, nine-hour bus trip to Pokhara, stopping only briefly to eat and to pick up 12 rather shabby-looking porters.
The walk in traditionally takes five or six days through lush, dense forest, a far cry from the barren dustiness of the Khumbu region. Relaxed walking, combined with pleasant tea houses, made for an excellent way to de-stress from the rigors of western life. My three companions, never having been to Nepal, were surprised by how laid back and hospitable the Nepalese were; they are surely among the friendliest people in the world. The only problem in those first few days was the heat; we were all caught out by this. Expecting colder conditions, we had little in the way of cool clothing.
The first hint of trouble came on the morning of the last day before base camp. It wasn’t so much a hint, but more like an out-and-out strike. Demanding more money, the porters dropped their loads and began walking down the valley. Only after the promise of an extra two days’ pay would they consider carrying any farther. This form of blackmail is a personal gripe of mine. Having previously agreed to a price arranged by our sirdar, the porters waited until we were in a position with little option but to agree to the new terms. I’ve had similar problems all over the Himalaya, and while I sympathize with the problems of local people, there is no excuse for what amounts to robbery. This, combined with the theft of warm clothing loaned to the porters for the walk in, left a bitter taste to the otherwise jolly approach march.
That day’s walk proved to be quite exciting, with two cold, scary river crossings and lowering the loads down a 12-meter cliff. Arriving at base camp in a light drizzle surrounded by mist lent an eerie feel to the desolate site. Quickly paying the now-happier porters, we started to put up the tents.
The good thing about being a British alpinist is that traditionally we’re generally all unfit and we’re always on shoestring budgets. This of course leads to a ghetto-style base camp with shitty food. Yet we have a good reputation for both epics and success! John Varco, our American friend, seemed totally mad for the concept of British alpinism, and this was lucky because there was a very British feel to this trip. Eating our first base-camp meal in the misty darkness with no mess tent didn’t quell his enthusiasm.
I had a vague memory of Sam saying that the walk from base to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) was bad, and the view I soon looked at, from the top of a nearby moraine, confirmed my fears. An apocalyptic landscape of loose rock and dirt stretched upward. Now, due to a wee argument with the ground some years back (which I lost), my ankles and moraines aren’t good friends. The sight horrified me. Five days of load ferrying later, Sarah and I stood at the site of ABC; the moraine had turned out to be a pussycat really, with distance being the only concern. But with Sarah’s help ABC was established and stocked.
Returning to base camp, we found an Italian team, and, although we knew they were coming at some point, their presence made us uneasy. Thoughts of the stand-off between Don Whillans and the Italians in Patagonia in the 1960s flashed through my mind, along with Bonington’s famous picture of Don suggesting that the rival team climb elsewhere. John seemed up to the task of telling them, and Ian, as ever, was keen to photograph the event. As it turned out, we had three warm, friendly guides from Courmayeur as neighbors who didn’t have desires on our line.
During a rest day at base camp, in true Brit style we realized that either we hadn’t packed a few items back in the UK or else we had left them in a beery haze in Kathmandu. This included all my thermal underwear, the spare stove, most of John’s snow pickets, the shovel, and any decent hill food. But Sarah, leaving us to guide in the Khumbu, could buy goods in Pokhara with the last of our money and send them up. Thanks to my miscalculations, we now had about $100 left to buy all these goods and get back out. True British style. John loved it!
Climbing is a dangerous sport; there is the danger of serious injury or death even on a boulder problem. This danger is heightened a little by the time you get to the Himalaya, and although one of the reasons we selected this route was due to the fact it looked safe, objective dangers can manifest themselves in many ways. The icefall between ABC and the base of the wall was not so much objectively dangerous as just plain dangerous. The traditional method of travel underneath such huge tottering cliffs of death was a simple one…run! This proposal was from John, who took gold in the “icefall sprint.” The prize was a smashed Slovenian helmet at the far end and the chance to duplicate the feat the following day. This sprint might lose its terror the more we passed, but it never lost its potential of creating instant death.
Finally, all three of us sat beneath the wall. Ian, keen as ever, wanted the first pitch, so while John and I sorted the kit into three loads, Ian racked up. Then howls echoed off the rocky walls. “Shit, shit, shit.” I looked up to see Ian hopping round in one shoe. Through the stream of obscenities, John and I established that Ian had dropped a rock shoe down the bergschrund. We also quickly worked out that he had only one pair on the trip. John turned a furious red. Ian looked distressed. I lit the stove and made tea. An hour and much tea drinking later, John emerged with the shoe held aloft. A pitch later saw us on the flat glacier beneath the main wall, but the lost time through shoes and tea-making meant pitching the tent there and fixing a few pitches.
Waking late the next morning (another good Brit trait), we hastily packed and fired up the lines. The plan to climb with two big sacks had broken down to two big sacks and a haul bag. A mere four pitches took almost all day, with the pig being the big problem: we had never expected to haul and therefore had no kit to do so. We were, however, moving up and found a great ledge where we spent a good night losing to John at cards.
Following the Slovenian topo the next day, we expected 5.11 A2 climbing. Instead we found vertical kitty litter and very nasty R/X ground of generally moderate standards. Nepal is not known for its good rock, but this sandstone-shale was appalling, with exfoliating flakes and loose rock everywhere. It was horrific. Our secret weapon was Ian with his background of hard routes on appalling shale cliffs in the southwest of England. He rather enjoyed the experience, while John and I simply encouraged him and dodged the rocks he pulled off. We spent the second night on the wall in a bat cave, with Ian sleeping on my head and John half out the cave; not the best-ever night but it was safe. Day three saw us reach the top of the rock in 200 meters of easy mixed ground, with the afternoon lost to tea drinking and playing cards. Pitching the tent, we saw that the rest of the route looked enticing.
We spent the next few days camped at 6,000 meters. John, slow to acclimate, remained in the tent with a banging headache while Ian and I ferried a load to 6,250 meters on the snow arête. The evening was spent hydrating, losing to John at cards once again, and debating whether we shouldn’t simply just go for the top right then.
Sense luckily always returns, and Day 6 saw us reversing the route to ABC and trudging back to base camp in the twilight. The rest period we had there saw the only real bad weather of the trip, with about four inches of snow. Although this quickly burned off, it was enough to persuade us to have an extra rest day.
The Italians, who had been on the hill during the bad weather, returned to base camp dejected; with only a week left, it seemed unlikely they would summit. Although I felt for them, I was secretly pleased that the mountain was ours and that there was no element of competition left (not that there ever was much).
It’s amazing how quickly four days can pass, and it’s amazing how slow six hours of moraine can seem. Our return to ABC seemed a massive chore, with Ian only just making it in the twilight. We therefore decided to rest another day. John was most pleased with another chance to introduce further new rules to “Alaskan Way,” a version of gin that he kept winning.
The next plan was that Ian and I were to fire the lower rock buttress in a day with light loads while John jugged the Slovenian lines with a heavy load. This seemed to work well, with all pitches going free and in good time. Ian and I reunited with John at the end of the day with hot tea and a tent he had pitched for us—a pretty good setup, I thought.
The next day, however, was not as good; we made little progress up the snow for good reason: our sacks were simply too heavy. After three hours we were completely spent. I’m not sure how the others felt, but for me this was a physical and mental crash. (It’s worth noting that Brits are always bad at expressing feelings; it’s not the done thing. A group hug may have eased my burden, but the British Way states otherwise.) Doubts entered my mind: the altitude, my physical fitness, the weather. All the normal doubts, really, but they were amplified by the enormity of the mountain. Despite our ditching food and gas, the sacks felt heavy again the next day, when a slow plod up 45-degree slopes felt hard. To add to my doubt, swirling clouds enveloped us before it snowed, forcing us into another short day.
Three people in a tent little bigger than a Bibler doesn’t make for a comfortable night, especially when the wind presses the fabric hard against your face. A sleepless night made way for a beautiful day and a short climb to the second rock band. Here we split again. Ian dug a snow hole and pitched the tent while John and I fixed a pitch. The following hours, to us, felt like true freedom; without a sack we could move fast, with the sea of clouds beneath us offering a stunning view. John rapidly secured the rope, and we zipped down to camp to be treated to a sunset that filled me with hope for the oncoming events.
The second rock band, an item of much debate, was solved only by climbing it. A long, funky lead by John over massive loose flakes put us on a snowpatch that ran to an exit gully. The Slovenians had perhaps gone farther left, but Ian confidently disappeared up a thin gully that seemed to be a little tricky if his swearing was to be believed. The line proved to be a winner, and soon John took over and quickly disappeared onto easier-angled ground as the light began to fade. Resigning ourselves to a poor bivy, we chopped into the night to produce a long, thin ledge to semi-lie on. The Ghetto, as it became known, was really the only poor bivy on the route. Neither stove would light, and John developed a bad cough that produced gooey blood. He was pretty incoherent. It was one of the few times all three of us got properly cold. Ian re-warmed hot-water bottles midway through the night in an attempt to keep us warm.
Dawn finally arrived. Our tired, cold, aching limbs barely worked as we packed the kit away, waiting for an elusive sun. John seemed much better, and although his cough was still bad, his chirpiness had returned. I kicked off the ledge and worked up toward the ridge; despite the poor night I had a certain confidence. At last we were on virgin ground, something we were all pleased about. A classic knife-edge ridge wandered its way up onto a plateau before a false summit. Looking back at the others, I was rewarded with a wonderful sight of two figures plastered onto the ridge with the hills and plains rolling away behind them.
Our plan was to establish a camp as high as possible and then push to the summit, though we were concerned about the distance we had to make across the summit plateau at 7,500 meters. But with a bitterly cold wind tugging at us, we later stopped to discuss our options. Ian’s watch read 6,800 meters. A bivy here would leave one hell of a summit day, but soon our discovery of a huge ice cave was the clinching card. Crawling inside was like entering a Tolkien book: huge, thin ice flutes hung down in the blue, shimmering light, and the hole disappeared into a dark abyss where an icy beast must have lain in deep slumber. Twenty minutes of chopping allowed the tent to be pitched free from wind.
No one had much appetite. Trying to force down noodles was almost impossible and chocolate was as bad. John lamented about his high-energy carbo super-food sitting in my kitchen at home. I had always scoffed at those who wrote about altitude apathy, but now all three of us couldn’t even be bothered to eat or drink. Fluids are the key but somehow doing nothing seemed to work better.
Deciding to take a stove and a shovel and little else, we emerged out of the cave into the harsh light of day to find a furiously cold wind. Unroped, we staggered off at our own pace. John stopped to adjust a crampon and fell behind, and after a while I looked back to see him some distance away. A wave of anger flushed through me. “He’s not strong enough,” I thought. “His pace is too slow and he’ll never make it. But I can. Leave him and go on yourself.” Ian soon stopped, saying, “Screw this.” I pushed on at a quickening pace. “Just leave them, you’re stronger.” Climbing for me, luckily, is more than such selfishness. Climbing is about teamwork and friendship, a bond between partners. Looking back now, I’m disgusted with my thoughts. Maybe it was the fear of going alone or a realization that we were a team, but I stopped and waited. There was no doubt, of course, about the strength of John or Ian, both of whom could run rings around me. So why was I so suddenly selfish?
Popping onto a false summit, we realized that the main summit was much closer than we had thought. Nothing was going to stop me or my friends from nailing this one. Two years of longing and five weeks of grueling effort were coming down to this. Tying into our 5.5-mm Spectra cord, I hammered off along the ridge, screaming into the biting wind. I felt like a god, with waves of adrenaline washing over me. John thrust his tools into the air; the battle charge had been sounded. The summit came abruptly, the ground dropping off all around. Yelling to the sky, I burst into tears. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
Heading back, I had feelings that can’t be explained. Somehow I knew that we’d be okay, and for the first time in days I was relaxed and calm. John led us back along the ridge in the freezing wind toward the shelter of the cave. Our cave was heaven, with the wind beaten and the mountain beaten. The stove purred. Hugging and slapping each other, we slumped down to a strange silence, each of us lost in thought.
We spent the afternoon in the cave, despite how early it was. We concluded either we were a lot higher than we thought or that the summit was 300 meters lower than stated. We joked that we’d ask for part of our peak fee back!
Leaving in the morning was hard, for we were more spent than we thought. Finally Ian left, forcing John and me to follow. Reversing the route was slow; soloing down the middle snow ridge was frightening, and the snow had a strange consistency that didn’t inspire confidence. Our idea of reaching the Slovenian ropes this day slowly evaporated as our legs and minds tired. Three mentally exhausted people slept that night knowing that at least ABC would be reached the next day.
Although we used the Slovenian lines to rap the buttress, I believe it would have been possible to do this without their line. But in our state it seemed stupid not to use the fixed ropes. I can’t condone the fact that the Slovenians left the lower rock in such a mess (with all the rope), but I have to say I’m glad they did. Rapping the three-year-old lines was nervewracking, and strange, groaning noises came from the ropes. John struggled down on a Munter hitch, having dropped his belay device, and spent 15 minutes at one stance trying to untangle the twists.
The icefall tried one last time to kill us. A swirling mist meant that we got lost among the tumbled blocks, and we spent much longer in the death zone than we should have. Our dulled senses after 10 days of effort left us not caring about the danger.
It’s strange how distances get exaggerated. Stumbling down in the twilight to base camp, we found that everything took on huge proportions. The loads were heavy from trying to clear ABC in one carry, and we were tired from 10 days’ work. The path, unclear at the best of times, seemed to have disappeared completely, leaving miles of unstable moraine. We had split up soon after leaving ABC, John leaving first. Ian and I simply looked and nodded at each other. Although Ian is my regular partner on trips (we live 10 minutes apart yet I rarely see him and never climb with him at home), he infuriates me sometimes—but I love him for it. As the light faded, we simply thanked each other. Why I don’t know, but we both understood.
At one point, stumbling, I thrust out a pole to no avail. Twisting, I cartwheeled down the slope, finally pulling myself to a sitting position. I saw the dark figure of John close by, and this was the only reason I didn’t cry through frustration. Instead I quietly got up and carried on. Ian passed me just before base camp, leaving me alone for the last short distance. Sitting on a boulder in the moonlight, I looked back up our route. I felt pleased and proud thinking what all three of us had just achieved. Now it was time to leave for home—but then I remembered we had no money. Still, wasn’t that the British way?
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Annapurna Massif, Nepal
Ascent: First ascent of the southwest ridge of Annapurna III, 7,555m. Kenton Cool, Ian Parnell, and John Varco, October 2003. “A rating is not required as all had a great time and ratings simply add competition and bitterness to what should be a fun sport.”
A Note on the Author:
Kenton Cool, 30, lives in Sheffield, England, with his girlfriend Sarah, who seems to be able to out-climb, out-ski, and out-party him. Every day he's climbing is great because it means he’s not at work and therefore having fun. Kenton is part way though his international guides’ ticket. He would like to thank Mountain Hardwear, the British Mountaineering Council, the Mount Everest Foundation, Urban Rock, DMM, Black Diamond, and Arc’teryx.